BOISE, Idaho — Three games into their respective seasons, the idea of the University at Buffalo and San Diego State meeting in a bowl game fell under the heading of far-fetched dreams. The Aztecs were 0-3. The Bulls were 1-2 and needed five overtimes and two scoops of good fortune to dispatch lower-division Stony Brook. Neither was shaping up as a bowl invitee no matter how extensive the guest list.
But three games do not a season make. From that point on, UB and SDSU reversed course and marched lock-step into the widespread postseason celebration of the college game. Both won seven of their last nine. Both placed second in their conference divisions. And this afternoon on the blue turf of Bronco Stadium and before an ESPN audience, they’ll return for an encore in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
SDSU views this as another link in its growing chain of success. This makes four straight bowl appearances under coach Rocky Long, matching the total over the 41 Division I-A seasons before his arrival.
For UB, this is all about validating the rebirth of the program and orchestrating a fitting send-off to what’s arguably the most talented senior class in school history. UB never has won a bowl game, having lost to UConn in the International Bowl of 2009. And it could be a very, very, very long time before they have another first-team All-American (Khalil Mack) playing on the same team as the school’s all-time leaders in rushing yards (Branden Oliver) and touchdown receptions (Alex Neutz).
“This is a great opportunity to send the best senior class that’s ever gone through UB out with a bang,” said sophomore quarterback Joe Licata.
While the Bulls and Aztecs matched records over the last nine games, their styles diverged. UB made a habit of the emphatic victory and trounced opponents by at least 20 points during the final six contests of a seven-game winning streak. SDSU’s season was fingernails bitten to nubs. The Aztecs tied an FBS record (shared by UB, 2008) with four overtime games, three of them victories. And they managed that, and three other wins of 10 or fewer points, while ranking near the national bottom in turnover margin and at the bottom in red zone defense.
“There’s a lot of things about this season that were a first for me and I’ve been coaching for a long time,” Long said. “I think the seniors did a great job of keeping the team together and being able to win that many close games in order to put us in the position to come to a bowl game. I’ve never seen a team that was that mentally tough. We had a couple games where if one play goes right we might have won two more.”
Long’s coaching philosophies can be as unconventional as his team’s path to Boise. He soured on his kickers midway through the season and hasn’t attempted a field goal in four games. Current kicker Wes Feer hasn’t made a field goal since Sept. 28. Best to assume they’re in four-down territory whenever the Aztecs have the ball.
“My philosophy, my personality, is any time you think you can make it on fourth down, you go for it, no matter what the situation is in the game,” Long said. “I’m not a believer in Football 101. What has been described as doing it the right way or the proper way, the statistically right way, I’m not built that way.
“Now we went for a lot more fourth downs this year than we would normally go for because our kickers have really struggled, and I mean really struggled. So if there’s any questions about going for it or kicking a field goal, we’re going to go for it. And we’re going to do it tomorrow.”
The approach challenges the mind-set of defenses accustomed to three stops equaling an out.
“It keeps us on our toes because the whole game’s going to be a four-down kind of game and we just got to look forward to playing first through fourth downs and making even more plays,” said UB senior cornerback Najja Johnson. “Most teams will run the ball on third and short but we’re going to be prepared to play pass on all downs from the defensive backfield standpoint, and fourth down, that’s when we really got to pin our ears back and get after their quarterback.”
UB’s success has been predicated on protecting the ball and turning teams over. The Bulls rank fourth nationally in turnover margin at plus-1.3 per game while the Aztecs rank in the bottom 10 at minus-1.
“I’ve noticed that too,” Long said. “I think that’s going to determine who wins. Obviously they’ve checked us out on film and we’ve spent a lot of time watching them on film. I think the two teams and the two seasons are as equal as you can get. And I think the one stat that jumps out at us is their turnover ratio is much better than ours.
“Obviously we have to protect the ball and hopefully cause some turnovers. Whenever you have two teams that I see as pretty equal it’s going to be a great football game and a turnover’s going to change the momentum one way or the other.”
This is it, the end of the college road for 21 UB seniors, including five first-team all-Mid-American Conference selections. Johnson’s one of them, and to him this game means …
“Everything,” he said. “We’ve worked tremendously hard through the offseason and the seniors have worked for 4½ years for this moment. This is our chance to shine.”